Intellectuals get a bad rap. Long gone are the days when you could call up your favorite poet/theorist for a night of discussing German philosophy over absinthe and indoor cigarettes. In 2016, pretentiousness—which has come to mean, basically, making references to films or New Yorker articles or really any book that your conversational partner might not be familiar with—relegates you to a place of shame, or at least to a weird corner of Twitter. This is America, after all—we like the gym, and pop music, and war, and reality TV.
Yet, this prejudice against the pretentious exists simultaneously alongside the idea that sports and pop music and reality TV can be legitimate topics of analysis. This is where things start to get messy: Isn't it elitist to talk about punk as if it were a text? To juxtapose Rousseau with a dating show? To say an intense workout is reminiscent of Kafka?
Who cares! The fact is, everything can be kind of bad, depending on how you look at it. That is the premise (sort of) of Against Everything, a new essay collection by Mark Greif that approaches populist topics like exercise, food and pop culture from a decidedly not-populist perspective in order to deconstruct them, see how they work, and understand what they really mean to us. While the collection's title is delightfully antagonistic—and its first section, which contains critiques of the way we exercise ("Against Exercise"), think about and have sex ("Afternoon of the Sex Children"), and pursue healthy eating ("On Food"), might be considered really highbrow trolling—the contents are not necessarily so. Greif's point is not to tell you how to live, but to encourage you to really think about how you're living ("The Meaning of Life," Parts I–IV).
Thinking may be a hallmark of pretentiousness, but Greif—who is best known for being one of the founding editors of the literary and political magazine n+1—where many of the essays in Against Everything were first published—does it in a very fun way. I wanted to talk to him because after reading his book, I think he is extremely smart.
VICE: OK: Do you think the world is doomed?
Mark Greif: If there's a single idea running through the book, to me, it's that we actually live in an incredible age of freedom. Paradoxically, we are encouraged to make up new necessities and new obligations—we have to exercise, and we have to watch everything we put in our mouths; we have to worry about how long we'll live and everything to do with the health of our bodies.
It is kind of an amazing situation, to have had so many things that caused people so much pain and labor and trouble made really easy for us. It's easy to get food, and it's easy to cover your body with cloth, and it doesn't cost much. You ought to be able to step back and say, "Do I really believe in the things that people say are most valuable? If I run or go to the gym, am I doing it for the reasons that everybody tells me I am? Or could I have reasons of my own?" But the question of what you do after that is a really tough one, because it's really hard to say to yourself: What am I going to do with my moral freedom? What am I going to do with my time?
A lot of people right now would argue that you should be using that moral freedom to argue on behalf of marginalized groups on the internet.
It's a funny moment now—I think it's an incredible, wonderful moment. I think it's the best moment ever, insofar as the Republican Party has utterly destroyed itself, the chickens have come home to roost, and there are people in the streets. However, it's also very illuminating, because when you finally live in a bit more of a world you wanted to see—where people are arguing about really serious things, and shit is happening—it turns out that you have to live with an incredible quantity of sanctimony. Particularly, as it turns out, online. People being like, " I know the privilege that I have, but you don't know the privilege that you have."
You mention college as this kind of pleasant hiatus in various points of the book. But how do you, as someone who went to Harvard and who advocates an approach to the world that you learned there, view the American university system?
There is a crisis in university education in America. University education costs too much—much too much—and it creates a falsehood and a kind of evil weight around all the things I like and believe in about universities. One thing I wish had known when I was going there was that [Harvard] really combined, under a spotlight, a number of very different things. Because I was a nerd, I experienced it as a place where you could go and just sit at the feet of old people who have spent their whole lives researching something and hear them talk about it, and just totally lose yourself in this world of ideas. At the same time, there's this whole world of wealth reproduction passing on the torch of power from one undeserving generation to another undeserving generation. This is really said by the sheer expense of college.
But there's this other really mendacious level of promising that your future earnings and your future job will be tied up with what happens to you in college—and not really by anything you learn there. It's a very, very messy—and I think kind of terroristic—promise that colleges make in an era where jobs are shifting around.
"I really do think there is something that makes life meaningful—or just tolerable—in the perfectionist approach of asking, 'What do the behaviors of other people tell me about how I might be different, or how I might live differently?'" —Mark Greif
There's not necessarily very much practical application to your book—it's a lot of questioning without answering—and you mention self-help as a "debased form" of perfectionism. Could you explain that?
I really do think there is something that makes life meaningful—or just tolerable—in the perfectionist approach of asking, "What do the behaviors of other people tell me about how I might be different, or how I might live differently?" Perfectionism is dwelling in a kind of ceaseless process of trying to make yourself something other than what you are, or "becoming" what you are. Self-help, which I like a lot, is "debased" only insofar as it is prepared to stop [once you reach your target weight or attitude or whatever], or to say that there is a single answer that works for everyone.
A lot of spiritual movements right now take that kind of philosophical language and put it next to astrology, or things like astrology.
Dayna Tortorici (an editor at n+1) did a piece on astrology, and her answer was that there was a special value to astrology because it offered predictions about your life without making any kind of judgment. Its very arbitrariness and its way of shifting your life, focus, and mode of introspection onto the furthest objects away—the stars—rather than onto concerns about identity was liberating for people.
Do you think that the internet has had something to do with allowing people to recognize how arbitrary—or pointless—things are?
One of the challenges of the internet is that it makes you even more aware of the bankruptcy of generalizing from your own experience because people seem to be in such different tiny corners. One thing I find myself preoccupied with is that, in an era of cell phones, everyone seems to have someone to talk to. The fact that people are able to produce someone to talk to, about nothing in particular, whenever they want, gives you a very different sense of how human society and loneliness work.
There are some momentous historical events that you don't know about at the time. Your grandchildren say, "Where were you when Public Enemy was playing?" And you're like, "I don't know, I missed it!" And then there are momentous events that involve everyone saying, "Wow, we're living through a momentous civilizational change!" but that's all they can say. And that seems to be something about the internet.
"There should be a rule on the internet where people should have to say, 'I object!' before many of their categorical statements, because at least it would situate the whole thing as a kind of contest or adversarial game." —Mark Greif
What do you think about "trolling"? It seems to have suffered from some form of critique drift; people will say any critical comment about something popular is trolling. Some of your work might be considered "trolling" by some real genuine, wide-eyed, earnest people, because it criticizes things that are widely considered to be good.
A very, very angry letter writer to n+1 said something about me like, "You think you are undertaking thought, but it is mere dysphemism." I did not know that word; I had to look it up in the dictionary. It's the opposite of euphemism. So euphemism is where you use falsely nice words to put a happy face on something awful, and dysphemism would be taking something perfectly benign and choosing words that make everybody feel like it's horrible.
This is not the most unfair accusation for this kind of writing. Yet I have to say: I feel pretty OK with it. I have a lot of time for trolls on the internet. Name-calling and vulgarity—not so good. But there is something really valuable about a kind of unbridled ridicule that also drills down to the things that people seem to really stick to and be proud of and asks them whether they really believe in those things and whether they really should feel so proud of them.
But being surrounded by opinions on the internet all the time—mostly people saying, "This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong"—can be disconcerting, especially if you're not totally sure what you believe, because many of these people assert very strongly that they are right when actually they don't know what they're talking about.
I think a lot of what is weirdly called critique really functions in the way of legal point-scoring and legal objection. Really, there should be a rule on the internet where people should have to say, "I object!" before many of their categorical statements, because at least it would situate the whole thing as a kind of contest or adversarial game.
One of the pieces I'm proudest of in the book is the reality TV piece. I came to think that reality TV is about judgment much more than people acknowledge. Not about voyeurism, not about watching suffering, but about the ability to sit beside people's lives and judge: right from wrong, a good performance from a bad one, etc.
Do you walk around critiquing everything all the time? Are people defensive towards you?
I do! The exercise essay especially has always gotten this one remarkable reaction, where people come up to you and say, "Oh, man, that essay is so true! I completely agree with all of your critiques—except for the one thing that I do." And then they tell you, "I just joined a boxing gym, and boxing is, like, totally free of all these problems." In a way, I'm sympathetic, because it's a weird position to always feel like you should be finding the flaws or corruptions or dishonest motives in the stuff you love. I wanted to try to be only going after things that I do or things that I've done or things that I felt like I understood from within.
Do you complain a lot?
I think that, [despite being] the author of this book, I'm actually an embarrassingly cheerful person. I was raised to be extremely polite and find it very hard in life not to try to have good manners and mind however people feel, even when they're doing something horrible—murdering a rabbit or something. I find it hard not to be like, "Oh, I see you like to kill rabbits—I understand!"
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Against Everything by Mark Greif is available in bookstores and online from Penguin Random House.